By AA PATAWARAN
“You’re a great audience by the way,” said Martha Stewart, lifestyle mogul and founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia to her Filipino audience, 500-strong, at the grand ballroom of Sofitel Philippine Plaza.
Among her listeners were only some of the lifestyle giants in the Philippines, the likes of Nena Tantoco, herself a Martha Stewart for having carved a name for her lifestyle expertise, baking, for instance, and flowers and “everything,” as I told her, running into her at the Sofitel lobby, “this whole Rustan’s, which your whole family, the Tantocos, has built from scratch since the 1950s to help Filipinos create, craft, and curate the good life.”
Oh and there was Lizzie Zobel de Ayala as well as mother-and-daughter Presy Ramos and Xandra Ramos-Padilla. Also spotted were Margarita Fores, Bettina Aboitiz, Ina Ayala, Sharmila Hiranand, Malou Pineda, Bryan Yap, Carol Garcia, along with Sen. Grace Poe and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno. And so on and so forth, everyone laughing at Martha’s antics (she’s funny), everyone clapping their hands to her witticisms—and she was game! She didn’t even need to warm up to the audience. One question from Karen Davila, designated host of the ANC-organized leadership talk, and Martha launched into a full spiel sharing how much of her passions she has turned to business and how much of her business is really just her passion making millions, billions for her. When introduced as the first American self-made billionaire, she took no time to correct the statement. “I was the first American self-made billionaire woman,” she said.
She revealed how currently she has turned four of her homes on the East Coast of the US into a laboratory of sorts, in which she comes up with ideas on cooking, decorating, homekeeping, product design, color schemes, etc. Each of these four homes now represents what Martha Stewart has to offer to a vertical market, focused as it is on specific goods and services that meet the needs of a niche customer group.
There is Skylands, her mountain retreat on Mt. Desert Islands in Maine. There’s Bedford, her upscale hamlet, sprawling at 150 acres, in Westchester County in downstate New York. There’s Lilypond, her beach house in the East Hamptons. And then there’s Perry Street, her penthouse apartment in New York’s West Village.
But all these Martha shared in answer to the first question of the afternoon, taking up more than the first 10 minutes of the one-hour program. Practically half of the ballroom grew up with Martha, the other half watched her grow from a small catering firm in New York in the ’70s (“But before that I was a stockbroker,” interjected the home décor maven, who was also a model at some point in her youth, until she gave birth to her firstborn) to a big, international name in publishing, broadcasting, and retail. But maybe more than half didn’t know she was funny and that she wasn’t all that serious. When someone asked her what she felt about being called a neat freak, she said, “I love it! But I’m more of a perfectionist.” She did confess she was a tough boss, “but I’ve mellowed when I realized there has got to be balance in the workplace,” only to contradict herself later on to say, “Nobody has balance anymore. It’s a crazy upside down world and you just have to make the best possible life for yourself.”
Steven Spielberg told me, when I ran into him, “you turned housekeeping into an art form.”
Martha was pretty candid, too candid, in fact, to have answered the question we dared not ask: “There was no coffee,” she said. “It was not unpleasant, it was horrible, but I survived.”
She also said something about cannabis, over which she recently partnered with Canadian marijuana company Canopy Growth in an advisory role, but “wait!” first she said, turning to Karen Davila, “is it legal here?” When Karen said no, she said, “I better not saying anything more,” but she did talk about coming up in the future “with a brownie mix that is nothing like you have tasted before.”
About the cost of success, Martha spent half a second thinking about what she should say and with a bit of regret in her voice, she said, “My marriage suffered… but I also had a creepy husband, I guess. My friends have long, enduring marriages and, for sure, it’s easier to have a man around, to take out the trash and to buy the wine.”
The entrepreneurs in the room may have extracted a few bullet points out of the 78-year-old how-to guru’s one-hour talk and, at the risk of oversimplifying the success story of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, I’d list them down here as self-explanatory quotes: 1) Have a big enough idea; 2) Fill a void; 3) Be resilient enough to survive the day-in-day-out problems; and 4) Keep ahead of the curve.
By number four she meant embracing all the opportunities available to push your entrepreneurial efforts, making special mention of the digital platforms. “When I was starting out, I had the newspapers, TV, and radio, that was it, but now we have social media, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Instagram TV, and Stories, YouTube…”
Marketing and public relations, at which she said she was very good, are essential, according to Martha, but “authenticity, a deep-seated feeling toward your ideas, and inquisitiveness are most important,” she said, explaining that these virtues have been ingrained in her youth. “I’ve been lucky. When I was starting out, lifestyle wasn’t such a big thing, but now, it is an industry. Living is such a vast subject. It’s limitless.”
But what inspires her? “I am always learning from people,” she said. “I get inspired every day. I love reading,” she said, citing Richard Powers’ 2018 novel The Overstory, the story of nine Americans whose experiences with trees got them together to address deforestation, as her current read. “On my way here (Manila), on the plane, I read the entire history of the Philippines,” in which she added, “I think you have beautiful things here, from the little that I have seen so far. The lechon, that baby pig, is wonderful!”
But who is Martha Stewart exactly? She straightened up in her chair and said, “I’m younger than I am. I’m fun. I’m hardworking. I don’t exactly remember when everything happened, which is good, which is why I am now writing a new book. But I don’t really think about legacy. I’m just living a good life. Living a good life is good, but living a good, long life is better.”